Archive for category Venkat’s and Others’ Selected Earlier Articles

Name calling in classifying world economy

By Kollengode S Venkataraman (October 2006)

In the post-World War-II years, the industrialized West classified nations into three camps using highly prejudicial terms simply because it fitted its perception. The First World comprised of themselves — the industrialized West — led by the US followed by Western Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. Later, Japan was included in this list. The Second World was of course the communist Soviet Union, China, and their allies, mostly in Eastern Europe. Everyone else was put in the derogatory “Third World” basket. Even the European-educated intellectual and the political class of the “Third World” meekly accepted this derogation.

Then, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand became economically strong, better than others in the “Third World” even as they became totalitarian and politically repressive. The West, particularly the US, kept its eyes closed to the political repression simply because these countries were also anti-Communist. Abstract ideology can be sacrificed at the altar of practical politics.

So, the West started differentiating these countries using increasingly value-neutral terms such as Pacific Rim Countries or better still, pandering phrases, Asian Tigers, for example.India was still a Third World nation having a slow “Hindu rate” of growth of 2 to 3% on the GDP.

Many sophisticated economists (such as Patrick Moynihan and John Kenneth Galbraith) realized the number-based classification of the economies of the world, which implies rank, was steeped in arrogance besides being crude and primitive. So, a softer term, “Developing Countries,” came into circulation. In this “Developing Countries” basket came countries as diverse as those in the Indian subcontinent, Central and South America, most of Africa excluding of course, South Africa ruled by the White minority under the apartheid . This euphemistic evolution in coining terms was an improvement, even though it still reeked of condescension.

And then, in the 1980s, the Second World destroyed itself as the Soviet Union imploded. So, to be politically and socially correct, another alliterative term, “Emerging Economies,” came into being. With Indian software warm-bodies solving the highly exaggerated Y2K problems in late 90s at tenth of what it would cost to get it done in the First World, India overnight became a leading member of the Emerging Economies.

Now that people of Indian origin have done well professionally in engineering, healthcare, university teaching, IT, hospitality business, and entertainment all over the world, the alliterative “Emerging Economies” became somewhat out of date similar to calling Sri Lanka as Ceylon, or Myanmar by its old name Burma. Because, as professionals, Indians have already “emerged,” even though India has not.

The latest buzzword (coined by Goldman Sachs) is BRIC nations,
referring to Brazil, Russia, India, and China. This is better since it at least identifies the nations by their names instead of describing them using condescending terms (Third World and Emerging Economies), obviously describing the world from the point of view of the powerful.

According to Goldman Sachs 2003 report (Global Economies, Paper No. 99, October 1, 2003), in the next five decades, if the BRIC nations focus on the improving their fundamentals, they will grow to be bigger than the economies of the G-6 (US, Japan, Germany, France, UK, Canada) even in terms of dollars (or Euros).

By 2025, the BRIC nations’ combined GDP would be half of the G-6. Besides, by that time, with the very low birthrates in the G-6 nations, their population would be more geriatric, while the BRIC nations would have a younger and more productive workforce. Even if Goldman-Sachs’ projections are not fully realized, it will be still quite impressive.

I read somewhere that in the pre-Industrial Revolution World, China and India combined accounted for over 40% of the world GDP. After over 300 years of Europe’s political colonization and economic exploitation of the rest of the world, finally, newer counter-balancing power centers may be emerging that will usher in new World Order in political, economic, military, and social terms.

But there are many pointers that this new World Order will be very different from what the First World envisioned when the Berlin Wall was brought down and the Second World imploded. — END


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The Refined Minds of Avadhootas, the Indian Spiritual Masters

By Kollengode S Venkataraman (Published in October 2006)

Indians often learn about their own history through the writings of Europeans during their colonial rule over India between 18th and 20th centuries. Consequently Indians themselves look at India through European lenses. Even for buttressing arguments on history and culture, Indians  need to quote the works of European writers, many of whom had their own missionary biases and colonial axes to grind.

Nowhere has this damaged more than in matters of faith and spirituality.  This has resulted in common “understanding” that Hindus are polytheists, image worshippers (polite expressions), idolators (derisive term), or even worse, pagans and heathens, whose “souls” need to be “saved” through conversion by persuasion, incentives, or if necessary, by force.

Indians are not known to critically examine writers coming from different cultural and religious background, whose objectives were economic exploitation, political domination, and religious conversion.

While the world knows about the Bhagavadgita as a work that
conveys the essence of the Hindu thought, there are other less known shorter Gitas no less sublime than the famous Gita. I had not heard of these till I read Mananam, published by the Chinmaya Mission West.

Among these shorter works on transcendental and intuitive spirituality is the Avadhoota Gita.Avadhootas are mendicants living beyond the concepts of merits and sins. Like the Sufis in Islam who came centuries later, a true avadhoota doesn’t proclaim himself to be an avadhoota. Jyotir-manayananda in Mananam writes on the Avadhootas

“Avadhoota Dattatreya’s uncompromising, nonindividualistic view of the Absolute is most beautifully expressed in the following verse:

त्वद् यात्रया व्यपकता हता ते, ध्यानेन चेतः परता हता ते |
स्तुत्या मया वाक्परता हत ते, क्षमस्व नित्यम् मम त्रिधा अपराधान् ||


By going on pilgrimages, I killed Your omnipresence.
By meditating on Your form, I killed Your transcendental nature.
And by singing hymns, I killed Your nature of being beyond words.
Forgive me for these three transgressions.

So long as people have religious beliefs, there will be objects of veneration, be they the books themselves (the Torah, Bible or Koran) and other relics. So, how can one say that veneration of one kind is OK, but not the other? 

Besides, all true religions remind us that these objects of venerations are only ladders for believers to look beyond. Yoga Vashsitham is another work that would shatter ideas that many of us have about fate.

Here is a sample: “In this world, whatever is gained, is gained by self-effort… … What is called fate is fictitious… …There is no power greater than the right action at the present moment… …One who says ‘Fate is directing me to do this” is dumb and the goddess of fortune would abandon him.”   — END


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Democracy in Iraq? American style?

By Kollengode S Venkataraman (October 2006)

Agreed. With so much at stake, in politics, as in wars, the emphasis has always been on winning. So, all tactics are fair in politics as long as one doesn’t get caught. And nowhere is this more true than in US presidential elections, where winner takes all and the loser instantaneously becomes a small-font footnote in history.

In the US presidential race, it is rare that a candidate, after losing in the quadrennial jamboree, has the stomach and the resources to come back to seek nomination for the second time, not to speak of getting the party’s nomination. The political establishments have no patience in giving second chance to any candidate.

Naturally, the stakes are high for the candidate personally, and also for the parties collectively. That the president can also shape the character of the judicial system for decades by appointing ideological soulmates for lifetime federal courts is yet another huge incentive for winning.

In the parliamentary system, members of parliaments stay for decades, and can have more than one chance for getting elected as prime minister. But in the US-type presidential race, if you don’t hit a homerun in your first strike, you are out for good.
So, deceptions, distortions, evasions, and obfuscation are integral to political campaigns in US presidential elections—as in wars. Manipulating people’s raw emotions and fear, so pervasively used during wars, is also common in politics, sometimes used brazenly.

In this presidential campaign, vice president Dick Cheney stoked people’s fears alluding that if Kerry wins the election, there could be one more terrorist attack. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, the third in line of succession to occupy the White House, reinforced that fear by saying on camera that he believed that al Qaeda might be indirectly supporting the Democrats. Dick Cheney’s and J. Dennis Hastert’s comments will be joining the annals of worst moments in US presidential elections — Lyndon Johnson’s mushroom clouds TV ad, and Herbert Walker Bush’s Willie Horton ad appealing to the racial fears of White America.

This year’s election campaign is one of the most vicious ones, with neither party wanting to address the issues people are confronting in their daily life—unemployment and the fear of losing jobs, escalating costs for healthcare and higher education, and people in the lower incomes looking at uncertain times in their retirements.

This is the reality of this year’s election campaigns in the most powerful and the “sole super power” democracy of the world.
If this is the state of affairs in the US with its 210-plus years of democratic traditions, one shudders at imagining the final shape of the Iraqi version of democracy that President Bush is trying to impose on Iraq.

US is trying—with daisy cutters, 5000-lb bombs penetrating hundreds of feet into the ground before exploding, and high-precision missiles, and at a cost of thousands of deaths and billions of dollars—to forcibly impose democracy at short notice on an Iraq unused to the restraints that democracy demands of citizens and more to the point, the rulers.

In all likelihood, like the Gresham’s Law in numismatics, the noble ideas of freedom, democracy, representative government, and minority rights under majority rule will be quickly displaced in Iraq by bad electioneering, demagoguery, threats and fear mongering, and the brutality of majority rule.

On this if you also superimpose the intra-religious strife and ethnic hatred and insecurities among the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, you get a hell of a recipe for trouble for many years ahead. Iraq might even disappear from the map (a la Yugoslavia), breaking into pieces as Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish states.

To make matters worse, with Shias in eastern Iraq having spiritual affinity with the neighboring soon-to-be nuclear Shia-ruled Iran, US would have sown the seeds for a Greater—and Nuclear—Iran down the road. After Iraq, one wonders if US will have the stomach to contain a Nuclear Iran using strong-arm tactics. Independent Kurdistan is another story.

George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld and their Neo-Con associates would then wish that Saddam and his Baath Party, castrated by UN sanctions, be in control in Iraq. — END


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Politics and Minimum Wage Increases

By Kollengode S Venkataraman (October 2006)

Folks, there is no way around bringing class and wealth in discussing this issue. Towards the end of July, the US Senate did not pass a bill that proposed to increase the minimum wages from $5.15/hr set in 1997 to $7.25 in three steps over several years. This bill was passed by the US House with Republican majority. The Republicans, facing an uphill task in the November midterm elections, wanted to outfox the Democrats with a bill increasing the minimum wages that was dear to Democrats. So, the Republicans, in spite of their dogma not to disturb the Market Forces in determining wages, yielded to election-year compulsions and passed a minimum wage bill.

Republicans talked how bipartisanship is the need of the hour in today’s poisoned political environment. Sen. Santorum waxed how the bipartisan compromise bill would give something both to Democrats and Republicans to take home.

While the bill increasing the minimum wage gave something to
Democrats to take home, it gave much more to Republicans. In the fall campaign, Republicans, likely to lose majority in one or both chambers of the Congress, sure will take full credit for the minimum wage increase. And also for more tax-cut goodies to their wealthy friends.

The minimum wage of $5.15 was fixed in 1997, which has the same purchasing power of around $4.20 in today’s dollars. The plot above gives the minimum wages and the gas price after adjusting to increases in the US Department of Labor’s consumer price index (CPI). In the history of minimum wages, this is the longest time during which the minimum wages did not see any cost of living adjustment. The members of US Congress during the same time gave themselves several wage increases with impunity. Remember, Republicans have been in majority since 1997, and they had their president since 2000. So much for Bush’s compassionate conservatism!

But true to their commitment to give tax breaks to the real rich, the Republicans also piggy-bagged an item to the bill that would reduce the estate tax to the real wealthy benefitting only slightly over 8,000 people in a country of 300 million. Republicans were only helping the really rich cushion the adverse impact of the rise in minimum wage on their lifestyle. Some Compassionate Conservatism!

The Democrats in the Senate, sensing the Republican blood in the water in November elections, managed to defeat the bill in the Senate. If Democrats win majority in one or both chambers in the Congress in November, they sure will send a bill to President George W. Bush’s desk a stand-alone wage increase bill.

The philosophical basis for the estate tax is well known. Paul Volcker, the ex Federal Reserve chairman and Bill Gates, Sr, the father of multi-billionaire Micro-soft’s Bill Gates support some form of Estate Tax..

After all, we have adjusted to the phenomenal increases in the gas prices in the last 3 years that has a cascading effect on price increases on everything; we have survived the Republican tax cuts to the wealthy; we are continually adjusting to companies walking away from their pension plans; we have survived runaway increases in healthcare costs and the rapid increases in the cost of higher education. So sure we can adjust to marginal increases in the minimum wages as well!

End note: The annual salary of someone on a minimum wage is around $10,500/year. This annualized minimum wage is below the government-estimated poverty level income of over $12,000/year for a single-parent with one child. Besides, people who work at incomes close to minimum wages rarely have health insurance. These people can as well be living in the much-derided Third World. As a matter of fact, they do live in the Third World living conditions, but in the First World. — END


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Desi Misbehavior Redux! Artists too are Now mad — A Contrasting Scene in Tamil Literature!

Kollengode. S. Venkataraman

Many readers agreed with the central message of the “The Multitasking Misbehavior of Desis” in the last issue that dealt with audience misbehavior at desi events.

Adults’ behavior cannot be changed by pleading for their good behavior alone because, as any addict would attest, unlearning bad habits is not easy. For desis, even shame does not work for changing behavior, because for one to be embarrassed, one must be sensitive. Consider these:

At a memorial service at the H-J Temple several weeks ago for someone who had died recently, the atmosphere was solemn.  And two people in the audience seated in the back kept talking, talking, and talking. A long-time resident among us known for speaking his mind took upon himself to tell the yakkers (much to the chagrin of his wife) to keep quiet. And they did.

Normally, visiting artists from India, being under the mercy of their sponsors, put up with lot of inconvenience in their concert tours. Lately, even visiting artists are frustrated by the audience misbehavior. Half way through their recital, they tell their audience to show some basic decorum. This happened recently, at the S.V. Temple in two concerts back-to-back.

T. M. Krishna, anaccomplished vocalist, half way thorough his concert on April 12, stopped singing and asked people in the audience not to walk in and out whenever they wanted.  He said something along this: “If you need to go out, please go out only at the end of a piece, and return to your seats only at the end of the piece being rendered when you re-enter.” And he elaborated: “A piece would include the alapana, krti with the sahityam, niraval, swaraprastaram, and the tani (the percussion solo).”

Most of his target audience might not have seen the dripping sarcasm in his words. One needs to be sensitive to understand sarcasm, irony, and paradox. Two weeks later, a similar announcement by another artiste in another recital, this time from Sashank, in his flute concert.

These kinds of misbehavior is damaging for another reason. Artistes are naturally garrulous. Just tap them gently when you host them in your homes, you will get the juiciest and spiciest bits of gossip. And the accompanying artists, specially the good ones, accompany other artistes all the time, and they exchange bits of gossip. And very soon, every artist knows about the audience (mis)behavior in every venue.

In contrast, I recall a lovely Tamil verse by Periyazhwar, an 8th century poet, in which he lets his imagination fly: “With his tender fingers gently caressing the bamboo flute, … his cheeks bellowing as he blows air, and his arched eyebrows converging, when Krishna plays his melodies, birds leave their nests, and spread around sitting still on the ground; and milking cows gather around … … and stand motionless without even twitching their ears, absorbed in his music.”

Here is the original verse:

Even for contrasting Periyazhvar’s birds and cows with Pittsburgh Desis’ misbehavior in concert halls, the 8th century poet will take offense. (In July 2008 issue) END  

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South Asians Outside Their Borders Part I: Construction Workers in the Middle East

Mohanalakshmi Rajkumar, Qatar, Persian Gulf (published in January 2006)

Mohanalakshmi, born in Chennai, was raised outside India since age four. She came to the US in 1988. She grew up in Texas, California, and Florida, went to North Carolina State U, and now is working toward Ph.D. in Postcolonial Studies at the University of Florida.. She is now a project consultant at the University of Doha, Qatar.

The debate over immigration policy in the US has intensified as attitudes towards  illegal/undocumented workers have changed. Some wonder what the fuss is all about. After all, in their minds, undocumented workers take menial jobs that no legal US resident takes. These unlawful workers, the argument goes, are a central part of the American economy. Eliminating them will create a large gap in the current economic structure. They are necessary and essential whether people like it or not.

Living in the US, the issues surrounding the Latino immigrant population can often seem all-consuming. But throughout the world, other immigrant populations encounter similar difficulties working outside their native lands. South Asian laborers in the Arab marketplace face many of the same dilemmas of Latinos in the US. The parallel maybe unwelcome, but the experience of the first tier of South Asian workers demonstrates its validity. This is the first of a four-part series focused on the Indian workers in the Middle East.

Beginning at the ground level, unskilled and semi-skilled Indian laborers provide the basic needs/services of the growing economies of nearby countries. That the labor is “racialized” in the Persian or Arabian Gulf region cannot be disputed. The oil-based wealth of most nationals in Gulf countries requires that imported workers supply everything from nannies to litter collectors. These countries are primed by foreign workers at all levels of industry and commerce. The levels of employment and types of jobs accessible to people are categorized largely by nationality, ethnicity and race. Western Europeans find lucrative packages and bonuses in well-placed positions in the commercial sector. Americans have now entered many countries as educational  consultants or faculty members.

If you are of South Asian descent with a basic secondary level education or lower, mostly you are a maid, driver, or construction worker. In many upper middle class Arab homes, South Asians’ are the invisible hands that prepare food, raise children, and perform menial tasks. Life for these worker means exploitation. Abuse and neglect are certainly possible, and often likely, for these semi-skilled workers. Workmen’s compensation, insurance, or benefits are far from the mind of most workers since difficulties in obtaining their most basic needs such as housing, meals, or paychecks consume most of their attention. Indian embassies in the region are inundated by worker requests for help; workers often come in groups to file claims of falsely garnished wages or missing passports preventing them from going home. Lack of staffing in embassies makes following up on these complaints challenging and difficult.

Construction work is the most visible field where Indians, Nepalese, and Sri Lankans are everywhere to build structures that have few regulatory codes or guidelines. Workers have few safety gears such as helmets or other protective coverings for hazardous work. There are virtually no safety harnesses for work on skyscrapers and deaths from fatal falls are not unusual. The desert heat provides another challenge to these exclusively male workforce. They work twelve-hour days and sometimes during the night, depending on how behind schedule their particular project is. In the summer official labor laws prohibit outdoor working if the temperature is above 115 degrees  F. In many countries the official weather reading is never published to avoid project delays. High incidents of workers passing out has resulted in trailers placed in or near construction sites where a heat stroke victim can rest for a few hours. Immediately on their return to consciousness they are sent back to their previous task.

Is it true that these jobs are actually wanted by anyone despite the treatment and work requirements? It is. In a country like India where the population explosion has forced people to get educated or look elsewhere, overseas labor jobs are attractive for the non-specialized worker. The profile of these workers is almost the same: Young men between the ages of twenty and forty who have passports and physically fit. They pay a fee to a recrutiment agency for placement overseas. Most workers can’t afford these agency fees so they start out in debt to their future employers. These companies are often brokers for the various construction projects within the country itself and assist with the filing of paperwork, visas, and issuing of plane tickets. In all their helpfulness, however, many of them falsify the contract offers to young workers which the men don’t discover until they reach their destination. By then it’s too late. Their passports are taken and held until they repay the amount owed to the company.

If these abuses sound harrowing, they are. Labor unions, worker rights, or human resources offices are fantasies in the day-to-day lives of these workers. The image of these thousands of hands could be akin to the Untouchable caste within Indian itself; but this population has no Gandhi to re-label them “Children of God.” Instead the complexities of economies built on capitalist principles ensure that the disadvantaged poor people will always want these jobs, and rapidly industrializing wealthy companies will always be in need of them.

Who is responsible for the plight of the immigrant worker in the Gulf region? Is it the worker himself who leaves his family, often for years at a time, in search of better income? Is it his own government unable to create jobs for him within his own borders that allow him to feed himself and his family? Is it the government of his host country that often appears to espouse principles of equality and democracy in the public sector? Is it his employer under whose sponsorship he is allowed into the country?

Any and all of these parties could be argued as partly responsible in the abuse of the uneducated Indian workers outside in the Middle East.   — END

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The Religious Right is Wrong on Women’s Reproductive Rights

By  Kollengode S Venkataraman (published in January 2006)

Ever since US Supreme Court’s 7-2 decision in 1973 on Roe vs. Wade that gave women freedom on their reproductive rights, religious and social conservatives — Protestants, Catholics, and conservative Jews — have formed a loose political alliance to work toward denying women any option in their reproductive decisions.

Anti-Reproductive Rights people are Republicans’ single-issue-based vote bank. So, Republicans seeking statewide and national offices (as senators, governors, and presidents) have been successfully wooing these voters with their shrill anti-Abortion rhetoric. These conservatives with their extensive network through places of worship never miss an opportunity to deliberately frame the question simplistically in black-and-white terms and demonize those wanting to retain women’s reproductive rights.

And they do it brilliantly. First, they invoke God exclusively to themselves, and call themselves pro-Life. They paint their opponents with the darkest brush, as pro-Abortion, worse still, as “baby killers.” These God-loving pious people also occasionally turn violent against healthcare workers providing comprehensive counseling (including abortion) to women confronting unwanted pregnancies—unwanted for genuine reasons. 

Unfortunately, most of life’s dilemmas rarely offer themselves in clear black-and-white terms; they come with varying shades of gray. Right-wing ideologues know this, but they are disingenuous in appealing to their single-issue vote bank.

When they call themselves pro-Life, by implication, they paint their opponents as anti-Life. After all, who can be anti-Life? And who can be for Abortion? The religious conservatives deliberately muddy the water by trying to make pro-Abortion Rights the same as Pro-Abortion.

On moral and ethical grounds, all are against abortions. But I am not sure whether we are unanimous in denying a woman rights on how she should proceed with her pregnancy when she is confronted with medical, social, criminal, and other agonizing personal circumstances.

Besides, we can never foresee all the combinations of circumstances — medical, social, personal — in which women would find pregnancy burdensome. Teenage pregnancy and pregnancies due to rape and incest are well-known. But new diagnostic tools of today detect with great accuracy serious birth defects in the fetuses even in the very early stages of pregnancies. All these circumstances are gut wrenching for the pregnant woman who is remorseful, and has to decide with the clock ticking when she is already petrified about her helplessness.

Take the case of a pregnant woman coming to know that her fetus is having a 99% probability of having a serious birth defect that would require that the newborn would need constant care all through its life — infancy, childhood, and adulthood. This is gut-wrenching. The pregnant woman and her husband may be willing to go ahead with the pregnancy and make personal commitment to provide the personal care. Still, the question of who will provide the care for the invalid person, after the they are dead and gone will haunt the parents so long as they are alive.

If the anti-Reproductive Rights people want to deny women their reproductive rights, they can coerce the state legislatures and the Congress to ban abortions through legislation. But this is easily said that done, and they know it. What they find difficult to accomplish through legislation, they try to ramrod through litigation. They walk test cases through the labyrinth of the nation’s court system all the way to the US Supreme Court. There, a group of nine men and women are the ultimate arbiters of all disputes, and beyond which we have no other recourse.

In closely decided cases with 5:4 majority rulings, in reality, it is not even the group of nine that decides the case. The single judge who can tip the balance from a 4:5 defeat to a 5:4 victory decides cases that may have far-reaching implications.  As a matter of fact, that is how we have George W. Bush as our 43rd president in 2000 elections.

It is worth remembering Chief Justice Earl Warren deciding the case against school desegregation in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. Justice Warren took considerable time in persuading his wavering brethren on the bench for arriving at a unanimous verdict. Given the social divisiveness of race in America, Justice Warren understood the inflammatory nature of a narrow 5-to-4 verdict would have on America.

The Warren court actually did politicians a favor by unanimously voting for school desegregation. The unanimous decision in Brown vs Board of Education gave politicians additional cover to stand up against those who were comfortable with the status quo. Politicians always dump on the courts issues that are too hot for them to resolve politically.

In politics in the US, the hold of “Family Value” conservatives is quite substantial. Yet, teenage pregnancy, high divorce rates, and single parent households are all facts of life.

In Japan and South Korea, both non-Christian nations without a fervor of excessive religiosity and piety, the incidence of teenage pregnancy is relatively low. Their men and women may lack all the freedom we boast of here. But traditional family values with emphasis on pride, honor and social obligation without the self-righteousness we see in the US is the bedrock of their societies.

In the US, while higher income families have two-career professionals, lower income families often have two parents trying to manage three lower-paying jobs just to stay afloat. Whatever the case, post-puberty children stay alone in homes till parents return, often without adult supervision. And making matters worse, quality after-school childcare, something that state provides in several progressive European societies, is not affordable to low-income families in the US.

For women confronting unwanted pregnancies all choices are bad, each having its own physiological and psychological scars to live with for the rest of their lives. Now, if the anti-Reproductive Rights religious conservatives have their way, they would tell the pregnant woman what she should do, or what she can not do, rather than letting her decide what she wants to do under very difficult circumstances.

One thing they, the religious conservatives, with all their energy and  resources can do is to educate youngsters to be responsible toward each other on sexual matters, and provide adequate and affordable after-school programs to teenagers in low-income areas so that we greatly reduced the opportunity for teenage girls to become pregnant in the first place.

If the religious conservatives get their soul mates as judges to the US Supreme Court and succeed in overturning Roe v. Wade, the only victims would be the urban and rural poor — black, brown, or yellow and white. The middle and the affluent classes, if they want to get abortion for their women, can and will discreetly go to Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean, where terminating pregnancies is legal. They have the time and resources. The poor don’t.

The realistic option for us as a society is to first of all do everything we can through adult supervision, secular, social and religious education, and by instilling true family values — honor, pride, even guilt for wrong-doing, and personal responsibility — to our young men and women so that we eliminate, or at least substantially reduce, teenage pregnancy.

And just as a “nuclear option” that politicians and warfare strategists want to retain as their last and most potent weapon in their arsenal—the modern version of Brahmastram of the Indian epics—as a civilized society, we need to retain the reproductive rights women now have under the 1973 Roe v Wade decision. Just so that if there is a rare need for terminating pregnancies on medical, social, and extraneous personal grounds, all women, even the poorest of the poor, will have the option. And have the option without getting harassed by religious extremists meddling in their personal affairs; without incurring huge expenses towards travel; and without endangering their lives by going to unqualified people in desperation.

Unfortunately, Republicans, in their vote bank approach to electoral  politics, have made this sensitive and divisive issue a litmus test in the political dialogue and in appointing judges into federal courts including the US Supreme Court. They have forced others, even a small magazine like this one, to take a stand on the issue. — END


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Dekho Hamara Hindustan!

By Kollengode S Venkataraman (July 2005)

Millions of Indian workers living in difficult living conditions outside India have been sending billions of dollars to India over the past thirty-plus years. It all started in the late 1960s when a large number of skilled Indians went to Persian Gulf countries in the wake of the oil boom.

Despite this hard currency inflow, at one point in the late 70s or early 80s, India’s foreign exchange reserves were not even enough to meet India’s import bills for one month. This was in large measure due to the 40-plus years of Nehruvian state-controlled economic policies inflicted on the nation by the Congress Party.

In that crisis, it was the money sent in small quantities by non-resident Indians living in the Persian Gulf, Southeast Asia, and North America that was responsible in large part for bailing India out.

In 2003, the overseas Indians’ remittance touched a all-time high of $17 billion. In 2004, according to the World Bank estimates, the monies remitted by NRIs to India touched $23 billion, the highest ever.

At the exchange rates of 2004, the rupee equivalent of the only 5 milion Indians sending hard currency to India exceeded 50% of the income tax the Indian government collects from its over 300-million strong anglicized upwardly mobile middle class.
Tax evasion among India’s middle class, big and small businesses and trading classes is so rampant that it is one of the biggest obstacles for improving India’s infrstructure, primary education and healthcare.

In the December 26, 2004 Tsunami, in Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Arabian sea, over 2000 people died and over 5000 people were ‘missing” and now presumed dead .

A woman in Andaman had a coconut grove that had 300 trees, all of which were wiped out in the tsunami. In April 2005, AFP reported that the government of India’s agents assessed the damage to her livelyhood and compensated her for her loss.

How much do you think was the compensation given to her for making a new beginning? 2 rupees. Fellow Desis, this is no typographic error. The compensatiion was an insulting 2 (TWO) rupees (around 6 cents), which is less than the price of one coconut in Mumbai market. Humiliated, the woman returned her compesnation to the government. — END


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Portends for the Future?

By Kollengode  S.  Venkataraman (in the July 2005 issue)

In mid May, I read a frivolous, derisively funny, and outrageous novel, Bergdorf Blondes, by Plum Skyes describing the life of young high-flying men and women hopping between Europe, NY, and LA, living a life of excess even as they endure marital infidelities, pettiness, jealousy, and backstabbing behind their shroud of wealth. (Review in next issue.)

Soon after enjoying reading Bergdorf Blondes for its hilarity, in the week of May 22 and later, I read in The New York Times the riveting multipart series published under the general title “Class Matters.”

This very serious series on which the Times reporters worked for over a year, discusses among other things:

1) How the American sociocultural landscape is transformed in the last 25 years by the ever-widening disparities in wages, incomes and access to resources between the top 2% of the population with wealth and the bottom 30% of the population struggling to make ends meet,

2) How the falling purchasing power of dollar and stagnant income levels of the working class  have seriously affected  typical families (couple + 2 kids) living below the median income (~$42,000 per year) but above the Poverty Line (~$15,000 per year), and

3) How it is becoming impossible for new immigrants taking up the lowest paying jobs to climb out of poverty.

The contrast between the two stood in stark relief.

The series discuses the accelerating costs of health care, college education, and housing, leading to more and more people getting marginalized. Forty-five million Americans out of 300 million population live without health insurance. State universities cost nearly $20,000 per year and private universities $45,000 a year for tuition and boarding. The dropout rate of average university students from low-income families is on the rise because of the high cost of education.   

The American middle-class lifestyle precariously hangs on the thread of people having jobs, which are at best nebulous given periodic convulsions in Corporate America. The salaried “haves” feel insecure even as they maintain a gloss of good life, and the have-nots feel trapped and see no way out of their misery. If this is not enough, consider these:

1. The Medicare program (which seniors depend on in their old age) is in deep trouble right now.

2. Social Security will be in trouble in the next 30 to 40 years. If Wall Street gets into this (as President Bush wants it), this safety net may end sooner, or end in a bigger disaster for the poorer, less educated individuals unfamiliar with speculative investments, particularly those who get into the market late in a rising market.  Since it is their “personal” accounts with full decision-making control, losers can not blame the government or Wall Street. We have been here before.

3.  Large corporations, left, right and center are filing for bankruptcies and  walking away from their pension and healthcare obligations to retirees. Smaller companies are sure to take their cue from their Big Bros.

4.  As it is, many national retail chains don’t offer healthcare and pension benefits to their new employees. Wal-Mart (with employees nationwide over 1 million) pays its employees $19,000/year on the average, forcing them to seek support from food stamps and government subsidized medical care. Since these are tax-payer-funded, even those who don’t buy at Wal-Mart, are indirectly subsidizing Wal-Mart!

The AFL-CIO reports*  that “Fewer than half of Wal-Mart workers are insured under the company plan — just 46%, while 66% of workers at large private firms are insured under their companies’ plans. Wal-Mart’s workers also pay an exceptionally large proportion (42%) of what it costs the company to buy the insurance. The typical employee at large companies pays 16% to 25% percent of total health plan premiums.

So in the next twenty to forty years, more and more lower-income seniors in their last few years will be depending on their children not only for emotional support, but also economic support, like in India and China. This will further cut into the disposable resources of young parents in the American middle- and lower middle class families. 

We are already becoming a economically polarized society, much like feudal societies of Europe and Asia, with ever-decreasing opportunities for upward mobility for those born into economic and social disadvantages, whether white, black, brown, or yellow.

Given this reality, eternal optimists want us to believe that economic Darwinism is still the solution and the forces of Free Market will eventually take over and level the field.

This optimism is unrealistic. At some point, the federal government, even when Republican ideologues occupy the White House and control the Congress and the federal judiciary, will be forced to provide for increased socioeconomic mobility for the socioeconomically disadvantaged through subsidized education, healthcare, and opportunities for youngsters to acquire marketable skills.

Politicians will do it not because it is the conscionable and right thing to do. As Gov. Ed Rendell said recently in a lecture at Pitt, governments [and other man-made establishments including religious institutions] rarely respond to moral imperatives. They will respond only because gross inequities are the breeding ground for much bigger problems such as social upheavals.

* (  — END


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Nippon Nuggets

By Kollengode S Venkataraman (in the July 2004 issue)

You would have seen, heard, or read how orderly Japan is as a society. Many Japan watchers both from inside and outside Japan say Japanese could do with a little chaos as it would add some social zest and excitement. But the problem is, if Japanese take this suggestion, they would structure chaos in such a way that eventually, even the chaos would become orderly. It should have a time, place and context, and they would come up with a list of dos and don’ts for being chaotic, as it happens in besuboru ballparks in Japan. 

This is just the reverse of what you see in India. Even in the boarding area in Europe-bound international flights, where people are educated (generally), and affluent (mostly), people are antsy, anxious, and hustle. The airline’s ground staff in India makes the same announcement over and annoyingly over again for passengers to follow the basic boarding procedure. Even when passengers have boarding passes that guarantee them their seats, Indians tend to hustle.

Recently, I had to go to Japan, China, and India on work. Note that I did not say I had the “opportunity” to go to Japan. Opportunity is something that you’ve been wanting to get all along, but somehow found elusive. I went because I had to. Age is creeping on me. Mine was a case of udara nimittam bahukrta vesham (For the sake of stomach, wearing too many costumes) as Shankara said over 1200 years ago. Or in everyman’s Hindi, it was a pate ka savaal … … 

I was not visiting metro Japan such as Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, or Kyoto. I was going to interior Japan. Small Town Japan. 

To reach this place, one has to first arrive in one of the international airports, spend the night there, and take a Shinkansen, or the Bullet Train, and go to the nearest junction, and from there take a local train to reach the Small Town Japan.

My flight from the ‘burgh was at 6:00 am in the morning, so, I
had to leave home by 4:00 am.  After a 2-hour layover in Dallas, my 14-h flight to Tokyo left at 10:00 am Dallas time. I reached Tokyo at 1:30 pm Tokyo time the next day. By the time I reached my downtown hotel in Tokyo, it was 5:00 pm Tokyo time, which was 4:00 am the next day in Pittsburgh. So, door-to-door, it was an exhausting 24-h of travel.

The on-and-off bumpy flight resembled driving through Pittsburgh’s pothole-filled roads, but 40,000 feet up in the air. When you look out, you see the tips of the wings of the wide-body plane swinging up and down in turbulence, like birds’ flapping their wings in flight. The flight was nothing to enjoy. I barely slept. So, before I knew, I was fast asleep in my hotel room in Tokyo.

The next day morning, I had to catch the early morning Shinkansen train to Hiroshima at 7:30 am in the morning. Trains in Japan are punctiliously punctual. It is entirely possible that if GMT wants to reset their clock, they may not look at the atomic clock, but reset their clock with reference to the arrival time of one of the Sinkansen trains in Tokyo! 

Not knowing the language, I wanted to reach Tokyo Central Station by 6:30 am. I woke up at 4:30 am the next day. It was already bright, and when I opened the hotel room window, I had this stunning view of the Tokyo Bay in front of me that I didn’t even notice the previous evening.  I wanted to take pictures of the view, and I looked for my camera. It was then I realized the camera was not with me.

I remember having it with me at the Tokyo Central Station. I realized I might have left my camera in the taxi during my ride from Tokyo Central to the hotel. Note that I did not say I “lost” my camera. In Japan, including Tokyo with over 10 million people, one never “loses” anything of value. One only “leaves” them it parks, buses, trains, taxis, restaurants. If you have some way of going back in your memory lane and pinpoint where you left it, you have a more than 95% chance of retrieving it, as it happened to me with my camera.

The only record I had was the taxi driver’s receipt. The only reason I kept it with me because I had to file my expense account on my return.  The receipt had the details of taxi company, the details of the particular taxi I rode, and the time of my ride, of course, in Japanese. I called the hotel front desk to see if they could do anything at all to track the taxi down. Mind you, this is 5:30 am. The front desk people apologetically told me they would try, without assuring me anything.

After about 15 minutes, the telephone rang in my room. Lo and behold, the front desk informed me that they located my camera in the taxi where I rode. Apologetically they informed me that it would take another 30 minutes since the driver was 25 km away.

When the camera arrived, the driver profusely apologized, and refused to take my tip. I had to thrust it on his palm to at least pay for the gas for his 50 km ride. With great embarrassment he took it because he did not want to offend my sense of gratitude to him.

Imagine this happening in New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, or for that matter, in New York, or LA, Paris, London, or Rome. Perish the thought.

The flip side of the Japanese conduct of not taking something that does not belong to them is the idea that one ought to be responsible for one’s personal conduct as I found out while reading a Gaijin’s experience recounted in the English language Japan Times. (Gaijin is condescending term for foreigners in Japan, much like gora or kallu among desis.)

A Yankee resident of Japan was traveling in a suburban bus. When he was to drop the money in the collection box, he realized that for his 370 yen bus fare, he was short by 30 yen in coins, even though he had currency notes of 10,000-yen denominations. Thirty yens, even by Japanese standards is a trivial amount.110 yens is roughly one dollar. The Yankee gora was embarrassed, and in his letter in the Japan Times writes that he told the bus driver apologetically that it was not that he did not have money showing the bus driver his 10000-yen bills, but he did not have the coins for the 10 yens. But the driver did not relent.

So, the American was asking his fellow Japanese passengers for help. In the US, in all likelihood, the driver, seeing the plight of a foreigner, would have said, “OK pal, get on.” Or as it happens in rural India or China, someone in the bus would have helped the foreigner with the small change. But not in Japan, according to the Yankee’s story.

One passenger had 10 bills of 1000-yen denomination, which he gave the Yankee, and another had changes for the 1000-yen notes in terms of 500, 100-yen bills, and 10-yen coins.

So, the Yankee takes help from two Japanese passengers, changes the 10,000-yen note into nine 1,000-yen notes and coins for the remaining 1000 yens, drops the correct care, and continues with his bus ride.

I was amazed at both the integrity of the ordinary Japanese in not taking into possession something that does not belong to them, and also by their fastidiousness in subliminally demanding that others be responsible for what is expected of them.

It could be entirely possible that in Japan, one complements the
other to make a perfect whole. That is the reason why Japan ticks, and keeps on ticking despite Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1944. Its economy has been sluggish for well over 10 years, and yet, there was no large-scale social discontent in Japan. 

Footnote:  When I was in Japan, the leader of Japan’s political party had to resign because he did not pay his premium for about 10 months for his old age pension. Imagine that. While in the US, Rumsfeld and his obedient generals all were saying for public consumption they are responsible for the atrocities against Iraqis held in detention at the Abu Ghraib prison. President Bush said he is disgusted and sickened. The president, who exhorts people to take charge and be responsible to their actions, sees no reason to fire anybody for the fiascos — political, policy, diplomatic, and military — in Iraq. And nobody in authority, particularly political appointees such as Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, or their assistants, wants to resign. In democracies, the only way to show that you feel morally responsible is for the office holder to resign, or be fired. 

It is not that politicians in Japan are angels. They are as crooked as politicians everywhere. But when scandals explode in the open in Japan, heads roll, and roll relatively quickly. The reasons for this may have cultural underpinnings. In US public life, it is more like lynching, in the political/social sense. The person is figuratively “hanged” in the media (the pedophilic Catholic priests, Protestant ministers’ sexual indulgences, or politicians’ corruption are recent examples), and they slowly twist and turn politically over several months even years, till they are forced to resign, confess, or reassigned. George Tenet, the CIA director resigned, only ofter 30 months for intelligence failures on 9-11; the Catholic Church in the US confesses over pedophilia of its priests after several years of living in denial; US military’s Lt. General Ricardo S. Sanchez in Iraq, was recalled for his tacit complicity over Abu Ghraib prison atrocities. END


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Manmohan Singh: Sonia’s Prime Minister: The Indian Democracy is Good Entertainment

By Kollengode S Venkataraman in July 2004 Issue

I was in Japan and China when the weeklong tamasha unfolded  in India after the April-May parliamentary elections. Contrary to the prediction of political pundits and pollsters — the Indian talking heads call them psephologists — the BJP-led coalition lost the majority and Sonia Gandhi’s Congress Party came back to power with its left coalition.

In India, the wide inequity between the upwardly mobile anglized class and the poor in access to resources such as quality primary education, healthcare, and communiation tools is there for all to see for anybody who cares. Since the Indian polity has no consensus on addressing these basic issues, and since the society as a whole is corrupt in myriad ways, Indian elections are always a verdict against those in power. So, nobody is surprised in India (unless you are a dumb Indian psephologist or a political pundit/academic sitting in his/her ivory tower) when the ruling party loses elections. 

Seeing the Indian political tamasha on TVs while traveling in interior Japan and interior China revealed how immature the Indian political system is. It was there for all to see when Korean, Chinese, Italian, German, French, and Japanese satellite TVs, not to speak of BBC and CNN, beamed video footage from Delhi.

Sonia, characteristic of the Congress Party’s hoary tradition, was playing the wait-and-see game, hyping up her cronies’ raw emotions against those nebulous and anonymous people who were portrayed to stand in her way preventing her from becoming the prime minister.

It was pathetic to see the Congress Party’s newly elected parliament members on camera crying in distraught as if Sonia has died. One by one, like minstrels in the Mughal court, they were in front of world TV chokingly pleading with Sonia that she is the only person they would accept as the prime minister. In the dry, scorching heat of Delhi in May, Congress cronies were lying on their back on the road in front of Sonia’s house, trying to change her mind. One guy stood in front of camera pointing a gun to his own temple that he would kill himself if Sonia does not become the prime minister. Sonia’s cronies made sure that she got the maximum mileage out this “spontaneously” staged drama. 

To further embellish the comic effect, the BJP MP, Sushma Swaraj, declared that she would not accept the Italian-born Sonia as the prime minister, and if Sonia does indeed becomes prime minister, she (that is, Sushma) would tonsure her head, and wear only white dress, reminding people of the social violence that the Hindu orthodoxy, decades ago, inflicted upon women when they were widowed. 

This is the reality of how democracy is perverted and debased in India, world’s largest democracy, in the backdrop of its Bollywood glamour, its skinny models in skimpy dresses cat walking in Mumbai and Bangalore fashion shows, its high-tech and biotech industries, its IT boom, and its nuclear bombs and missiles technology.

I also heard the ridiculous idea of Sonia’s son Rahul, barely in his late twenties and a political novice, elected for the first time to the Indian parliament under the Gandhi halo, tipped for the premiership by Gandhi cronies, if Sonia could not become the premier because of her foreign origin.

 Given this pathetic background, Indians are so delusional that when they entertain the idea of India becoming a regional superpower. Political maturity is the fist requirement for any nation-state for becoming a strong power. India is pathetic.

 The only sane voice came from the chief minister of one of the newer, smaller states (Uttaranchal or Jharkhand, I do not remember), who on camera said, it is pitiful that in a country of over 100 crore (one billion people), they could not find a native Indian for the job.

Finally, after the Mumbai stock market tumbled losing over 20% on a single day on the possibility for political instability if Sonia becomes the prime minister, and after Sonia got more publicity than what she could ever fantasize, she made the supreme “sacrifice” of turning down the prime ministership, and appointed the politically unambitious techno-bureaucrat, the 71-year old Manmohan Singh for the job.

The Indian media went into high gear on the “sacrifice” theme.  Columnists and Congress cronies started comparing Sonia to Ramayana’s Rama, who abdicated the throne to go on a 14-year vana-vaasam  (exile), and to Bhishma, in Mahabharata, who also declined the throne. 

Dileep Padgaonkar, the Western-educated journalist associated with Times of India, took the political hyperbole to a new height when he wrote something to the effect that Sonia becoming the prime minister would be in the finest example of India’s Vedantic tradition (!).

I would say that it was India’s misunderstood Vedantic tradition of focusing exclusively on personal salvation to the total neglect of building strong, fair, all-inclusive society, that made possible recurring invasions by Turks, Mongols, and later by European traders, who ended up ruling and lording over India. 

Sonia’s “sacrifice” is one bold stroke that gained  her enormous sympathy both within India and even internationally. At the same time, it is also her shrewdest move. After all, she knows her limits. Her “foreign-bornness” is only one of her constraints. She waited for over 15 years after getting married into the Indira Gandhi household, till the prospect of her husband Rajiv Gandhi becoming prime minister brightened, to renounce her Italian citizenship and become an Indian citizen.

As a foreign-born, her entry into Indian national politics is through the bedroom of Indira Gandhi’s household. She is not known for her erudition, or oratory, or other leadership qualities. She exploited the Congress Party’s culture of cult-worship and sycophancy. As the White, Italian-born latter-day convert to Indian citizenship, if she becomes Indian prime minister, she has to deal with Pakistan, Western Europe and the US. Any concession she makes as India’s prime minister in dealing with these would be traced back to her Italian origin, and her whiteness, and her late acceptance of the Indian citizenship. 

Even as she “sacrificed” premiership, she is in absolute control of her Congress Party. Besides, Manmohan Singh has given her the status of a cabinet member without holding any portfolio by virtue of being the leader of the left coalition. So, she will sit in all the meetings.

By thus retaining the true center of power in the Congress Party, and the focus of power in the coalition, she wields enormous clout without any accountability in government as well. Not a single decision of any importance in the government would be taken without her visible and invisible stamp of approval. Her sycophantic coterie would make sure of that. Already, foreign leaders are contacting her soon after customarily congratulating Manmohan Singh! 

This gives her extraordinary opportunity to further consolidate her position because this arrangement ensures that she could take credit for everything good (Congress cronies would make sure of this, for sure). Yet she could insulate herself from the government (including the prime minister she appointed) from all things going bad in running a government.

People holding no official position having enormous influence in organizational matters is quite typically “Indian.” We see them in “Indian” organizations such as temples and social organizations even outside India. Indian have even coined a term for this during Indira Gandhi’s reckless son Sanjay Gandhi’s time: Extra-constitutional center of power. 

Also, by keeping the party and Indian federal government fully under her control, Sonia keeps the seat warm for her son and daughter. In the next ten years, you will see both of them in the center stage of Indian power politics. In the nominally republic of India, dynasties do continue, whether it is in Bollywood, classical performing arts, national and state politics — even in succession of leaderships in publicly traded joint-stock companies.

When Manmohan Singh’s appointment became reality, I saw while  in China Western media heaping praise on him, on his Oxford-Cambridge education, on his minority status as a Sikh, and how wonderfully Singh, as the finance minister under prime minister Narasimha Rao, turned around the Indian economy in the late 1990s. Then, when I landed in India a few days later, Indian media, particularly the English media, taking their cue from their Western masters, were parroting the same themes, along identical lines, on Indian airwaves.

When Swaran Singh became India’s foreign minister, or when Zail Singh became India’s president, nobody branded them as “minority.”

Another Indian talking head was repeating what I heard on BBC
while in China: A foreign-born Roman Catholic (Sonia) “sacrificing” her opportunity of becoming prime minister by favoring a “minority” Sikh (Manmohan Singh), who was administered the oath of office by a Muslim president Abdul Kalam, in a Hindu-majority India. Nobody cared to say Kalam was chosen by the “Hindu” nationalist BJP.

During the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971, over 90,000 Pakistani soldiers under General Niazi surrendered to Indian military (in Chittagong or Dhakha, I don’t remember) in the nascent Bangladesh. The Indian chief of staff was General Manekshaw, a Parsi, and the person in charge of the Eastern Air Command (I think) was Gen Jacob, an Indian Jew, and the person in charge of the campaign in the Eastern Theater was India’s Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Arora, a handsome Sikh. Lt. Gen. Arora accepted the surrender Gen. Niazi.

Over 30 years ago, nobody in India saw the event through the colored glass of their minority status. But those who know the bloody Sikh history (Ahmad Shah plundering the Punjab during his invasions centuries ago, and Sikh Gurus getting beheaded under Mughal rule, and Mohammad Ghori and Mohammad Gazni’s lootings in India) saw poignancy in the army chief of an avowed Muslim nation (Pakistan) surrendering himself and 90,000 of his men to a Sikh general. People might have talked about in personal conversations. But I don’t remember people writing about it.

On the turning around the Indian economy, it is necessary to keep things in perspective: In the 1980s, India has been under the Congress Party rule for well over 45 years, mostly under Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, or Rajiv Gandhi. The party took India down the road of neglecting infrastructure development (road, basic healthcare, and primary and secondary education, water, and power), and spent huge amounts of taxpayer money on massive Russian-style government-funded industries, almost all of which lost money over the 45 years of its rule. 

Finally, under Narasimha Rao, India almost became a failed state with a foreign exchange reserve barely over $900 million (one dollar for every living Indian), barely enough to pay for 2 weeks of imports.

With the IMF and World Bank breathing down their necks, Rao and Singh had no other option other than listening to the dictates of IMF and World Bank to shutting down or privatize government-run industries. Even within India, as early as in the 1970s, locally grown and locally educated Indian political thinkers wrote copiously on the disastrous consequence of Congress Party’s policy of government running industries by draining taxpayer money. Since they were not educated in Europe or the US, their contribution never get mentioned by today’s brown saheb talking heads in India.

Praising Singh as the architect of India’s liberalization implies that Rao and Singh had the prescience to pro-actively decide in good economic times to change the direction of India’s economy. But the reality is, Congress Party’s Rao and Singh were forced to fix the problem that their party carefully created for over 45 years.

We wish Manmohan Singh all the best. Mr.Singh is now Sonia’s prime minister. We want him to be India’s prime minister. But given Congress Party’s cultish history (built around Nehru, Indira, Sanjay, Rajiv, and now Sonia, and may be her kids down the road), one wonders if Singh will have, or has the political astuteness to create for himself, enough political space to become just that.  END


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Booming China

By Kollengode S Venkataraman (Published in July 2004)

From interior Japan, my next stop was in interior China. I landed in Qingdao airport (population 6 million, 2.3 million urban) in China Eastern airline flight from Fukuoka, Japan in mid May. The weather was mild, and it was bright and sunny. Qingdao, the coastal city of Shandong Province, located about 800 km southeast of Beijing, is on the rim of Yellow Sea overlooking the the Korean Peninsula. By Chinese standards, it is a small town, 25th or 26th largest city in population. Its relatively small international terminal, opened only two years ago, is impressively modern. It was clean, bright, roomy, and airy.

But there were reminders of Old China: Our Airbus 320 flight, with only 150 passengers, was the only flight landing at that time. Yet, our checked-in bags arrived full 60 minutes after we came to the baggage claiming area after clearing Chinese immigrations and customs.

The whole of China is a boomtown, with around 10% annual growth for more than a decade. The effect is palpable everywhere. Wherever you turn, you see construction. One finds more construction cranes building 10 and 20-storey housing and office complexes, roads, industrial structures than cranes perching in the nearby rice paddy fields. Taking a 360-degree panoramic view from the roof of my hotel, I myself counted over 80 construction cranes.

The steel price had risen by over 150 percent in the last 3 years, and with the overheated economy, inflation was feared. When the demand for steel goes up, so does the demand for cement, plastics, household durables, automobiles, mass transportation, and gas… …

China Times, the only English daily I saw in the hotel in Qingdao, happily reported that the construction high-fever was cooling down, and that the demand for steel in China, much to the relief of the government, was also coming down.

The government was slowing down the economy by raising the interest rates and asking for more down payment and higher collateral for bank loans. Prosperity, in its wake, brings its own problems. 

China has limited-access, 4-lane divided highways linking major cities, like other industrialized societies, or some parts of the West Asia. I traveled on one such toll road at 120 km/h (~70 mph) for about an hour to reach downtown Qingdao, with its impressive, but characterless skyline, from the plant where I was visiting.

I was in China for the first time, and it shattered some of the stereotypical images of China I had in mind.  But every now and then, I was reminded that China is still in transition. 

1. Traffic rules are violated with impunity, particularly in urban and suburban roads. In 6-lane divided suburban roads (not highways), the driver who took me around had no problem driving on the side facing oncoming traffic. As a matter of fact, he was quite confident. 

2. People, exclusively men, smoked like crazy in all places — hotel lobbies, restaurants, airport lounges, even banks. But the woman who smokes is too fast or is of ill repute.

3. The fatality in accidents is the highest in the world. 104,000 deaths per year in a country with only 20 million automobiles. In the US, for a population of 260 million, has 136 million private automobiles (excluding trucks), and the number of fatalities in accidents is around 43,000 per year. 

4. Styrofoam debris from ships and boats were floating in the beautiful waterfront of Qingdao downtown. But this was not anywhere close to the blight I saw on the sandy beaches in Chennai, India.

The engineer at the plant where I was visiting told me, ten years ago there were lots of bicycles in Qingdao, a beautiful fishing town on the Pacific Coast. Five years ago, it was motorized two wheelers. Now too many cars. In terms of cars per 100,000 population, China is not anywhere close to industrialized nations, but it will be going in that direction in the coming years. 

Consumerism is booming in the nominally “Communist” China.  Wal-Mart-style supermarkets and fashion stores are becoming popular.  It is a remarkable transformation for country in whose currency is the profile of Communist leader Mao Tse Dung, who declared, “Power comes through the barrel of guns.”  Now power seems to arrive not through the barrel of guns, but through the millions of barrels of oil that China imports every month, and the cheap merchandise that China exports (or “dumps” as some characterize it) all over the world in tens of thousands of shipping containers.

People looked well clothed and well-fed by and large, at least in urban towns. Rural China may be another story. The prosperity is palpable. If the trend continues, as it sure will, in the coming years, Chinese will have all the health problems on account of over-eating, junk food, sedentary lifestyle, and air- and water pollution.

Each time I tried to settle down thinking that China has indeed
 made the transition into a  “developed” society, I was reminded that it is still in transition, as it happened when I tried to cash travelers checks. The hotel where I stayed bought dollars bills, but they would not buy AAA travelers check.  So, I went to the bank. It took nearly 20 minutes for me to cash my traveler’s check for $200. In spite of having a high-speed computer terminal with a flat panel screen, the bank clerk made two documents, each with multiple copies, asking me to sign in each. Then, with a rubberstamp, whose impressions were so worn out with over use, he stamped each of the multiple copies.  Thud, thud, thud, thud…

The transformation of China is here to stay.  Its consequences will be felt in countries touching the Indian and Pacific Oceans for sure. It will be felt well beyond, even in countries on the two Atlantic coasts.

In the hotel where I stayed in China, cable TV channels fed uncensored news from TV stations from Korea, Japan, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Germany and France, in addition to the ubiquitous BBC and CNN.

Simply channel surfing even without understanding the languages and looking at the video feed told me that on Iraq invasion, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld have succeeded remarkably in unifying the rest of the world against the US. 

Another point glaring to me was the contrast in the way the festering Israeli-Palestinian problem is presented in the American TV and in the TVs in rest of the world. American TV has a reflexively pro-Israeli slant. Even as the US TV channels present the Palestinian side of the story in bulleted texts and voiceovers, visually, the US TV channels have a self-imposed censorship in muting the suffering Palestinians. The rest of the world presents the Palestinian sufferings on TV in film clips having great visual impact, even as they are balanced in voiceovers in presenting issues from both sides. 

The differences in the visual presentation between the TV news in US and the rest of the world have led to world population and the US population looking at the issue from opposite ends. My Chinese companion familiar with the US political setup told me something that one hears commonly in the middle east: Israel is the 51st state of the Union.  

Other big players (China, Japan, EU, for example) will catch up with the US as they eventually will, in terms of military muscle, economic might, and technological advances. When this happens, it may be possible that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be resolved, and the two will learn to live as neighbors.

If we can take for granted the personal integrity in Japan, the lack of it in China (and in India) was too obvious. Every room, even in the five-star hotel where I stayed, had a safe-deposit vault anchored to the floor with digital keys for keeping one’s valuables safe. 

The society is so open that in a public park where I went for a stroll with Mr. Chen, my companion, men and women of all ages (between 20 and 50) were practicing a social dance that looked like square dance, with the loudspeakers blaring Western tunes.

China and Japan are so very different, and they have historical
reasons to be uncomfortable with each other. Decades ago, they hated each other. But economic objectives have made their relations more manageable at the political level.

Japan wants new markets for its developed technological base, and China’s burgeoning middle class is an infinite market for Japan’s top-end products for the foreseeable future. China wants newer technology and newer capital for its development, which it is able to get easily now, with its surging economy. As a mater of fact, the industrialized nations in Western Europe, North America and elsewhere are standing in line to get their share of the Chinese economic dumplings.

China wants to be a superpower — the phrase for China in the Chinese language is Zhong Guo, which literally means “the Central Nation.”  China wants to wipe from its collective memory the indignities it suffered under European and Japanese colonial occupation in the last two centuries, and wants to reclaim its glorious days of the Empire. 

But strong nations, if they want to be recognized as empires by smaller nation states, cannot brandish their military muscle without compelling reasons. It is the title conferred, not usurped. So, China is careful in exercising its political power, and more so its military power. 

Maybe there is a lesson here for the US. After the Cold War, if someone does a statistics on the number of times the term “Sole Super Power” was used in describing the US in the world audiovisual and print media, it is likely that the US media would have used it more brazenly more often than the rest of the world, much like the sheriff brandishing the gun in the Wild West.

What struck me the most in talking to the educated people in
interior China and Japan is their cynicism at the US, particularly, president George W. Bush, vice president Dick Cheney and  defense secretary Don Rumsfeld. Bush’s attempt to thrust democracy by flexing the US military muscle only to end up in Abu Ghraib prison atrocities has done enormous damage to US credibility even among people who have an envious admiration of the US.

President George W. Bush, by his increasingly I-don’t-give-a-damn unilateral approach to political, diplomatic, economic, and military matters on the world stage, has unwittingly helped in sowing the seeds for the germination of power blocks to counter the US might, one in Europe, and maybe one or two in Asia, among nations who were historically friendly to the US.

If and when these seeds germinate and grow, it will give rise to new economic, political, and military alliances whose consequences will be felt for decades. That will be the unintended post-Cold War New World Order, which may not be in the US global interests. END


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My Indo-American Odyssey

By Kollengode S Venkataraman (Published in January 1996)

We have never republished articles written by its editor.  But we make an exception.  When we published this article 11 years ago, our circulation was barely 400. When I blogged the same article, the feedback was unexpected, which prompted us to reprint this article.  If you are a desi male, and if you, or your wife or your children,  find that the “I” in what follows refers to you personally, I am not responsible.

Honestly, the “I” in this article does not refer to me personally, simply because I came to the US as a grad student already married, and to make it more challenging, also with a kid on our heels. –KSV

I have been an Indian for 25 years. Now, in the next several years, I’ll try to become an American. I will quickly learn American expressions, but my Indian accent will not go away no matter how hard I try. I will go to a university to earn my MS, MBA, or PhD or take a fellowship in a US hospital to become legit. The kids of Indian immigrants I see around I will derisively call ABCDs (American-Born Confused Desis), but little will I realize that I will be as confused, if not more.

I will hang around with other Indian boys. During weekends, we will eat masala paratha and watch good “bad” masala Hindi movies, which is good. You may call us ParathE Kids. I will watch X-rated films and think that Indians are ignorant and prudish about sex. Then, I will read Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra, and feel embarrassed about my ignorance. This will prompt me to read more about India over the next several years, and I will feel even more ashamed of my ignorance on India’s social, political, literary and artistic history and philosophical traditions and contribution to science.

Meanwhile, I will get a job or start my practice. I will buy expensive cars with lots of gadgets, bells and whistles. Even though I will have a well-paying job or a good practice, I will always be looking for a better one that I never seem to have and everyone else seems to easily get. I will always be comparing myself with other Indians who are better off than I am, and feel miserable. Even when I am wealthy, I will still compare myself with those Indians who are successful, or have other talents. And looking at my inadequacy, I will feel miserable all the same, notwithstanding my wealth.

I will think that the Indian arranged marriage system sucks. Therefore, I will date women at school, at work, or in the hospital. But when it is time for my marriage, I will chicken out, and willingly get sucked into the very system that I gleefully derided.

I will go to India and “see” many “girls” arranged by my parents — engineers, scientists, accountants, and doctors. Particularly doctors. I will want to get married to someone who is modern outside, but traditional inside. But in the whirlwind tour of seeing twenty “girls” in fifteen days, I will have no time to get to know them. So,I will end up marrying someone who seemed to me to be traditional outside, but she will turn out to be modern, sometimes, even radical, inside. 

Worse still, in choosing my spouse, I will mistake modern outfit for modern outlook, and forever, I will regret my mistake.

I will go to professional meetings in big cities. I will meet other Indians, and we will talk not about professional issues, but about Indian social life in our cities. But, when I will meet other Indians in social gatherings in my hometown, we will talk about our professions. There will be language-, religion-, and caste-based subgroups among us. I will make no attempt to understand others. I will become more parochial, and be proud of it.

Then I will buy a home. It will be mine, except for the 90% mortgage. I will buy a house that I cannot afford, because other Indians I want to ape live in big homes. I will buy fancy gadgets. I will buy extra warranty for the gadgets not knowing what the warranty buys. I will misplace them so that when I will I need them, I will not find them.

I will drive a lot. I will take my family to many touristy cities, and stay with my extended family and friends. I will give them only half an hour notice before we land even though I have a cell phone. When they do this to me, I will be irate, not at them, but at my wife and kids.

I will buy both Indian and American junk food and gorge it watching TV. I will buy digital video recorder and DVD  set with fancy features. I will try to record. The recorder’s instruction manuals will be written in Chinese, Mexican, Korean, or Japanese English that will be confusing. If it will be in equally confusing Indian English, I will at least understand. Then I will swear. I will mix American swear words and the choicest swear words in my native language and make them even better.

I will continue to see “bad” Hindi movies. They are now worse, which is better. But I will now also see equally worse regional language movies. However, I will stop X-rated movies because 1) Indian feature films are almost there, and 2) my kids are growing.

In God we trust, I will say piously in social gatherings. But just to be safe, I will also trust in gold, IRAs, and mutual funds. I will work hard, because I want to be rich. I will be always in a hurry. I will believe “Time is money and money is God.” Then I will see my friends getting laid off. They will have lots of time, but not enough money. Then I will question the wisdom in my belief. And as I grow old, I will find that even as I have considerable assets, and I will realize that I should have also expanded my horizon beyond my profession into other fields to savor my leisure.

I will go to India on frequent-flyer miles. There I will see many of my classmates in senior positions, and I will find that in the States I have hit a very low glass ceiling in my career. But I will be sophisticated enough not to reveal my torture inside, and I will think that people in India are jealous of my American lifestyle. That will make me happy.

I will surf the Internet and constantly be visiting the websites of my choice from work. I will read about Indian millionaires in Silicon Valley, not in the Silicon Valley newspapers, but in Times of India and Hindustan Times on the web. That will make me jealous.

Now I have one more reason to be unhappy — many of my Indian contemporaries in the US are several folds wealthier than I am. And my classmates in India are in important positions in Indian companies. Some have become very powerful politically. That won’t make me feel good.

While in India, I will criticize the Indian system, but will use it to my advantage. And back in the US, I will hate the American system, but will acquiesce in it. I will do little to change either.

I will smoke, drink, and enjoy beef and pork. Then I will read about cancer, cirrhosis, the high-tech plumbing jobs people need because of high cholesterol. I will try to give up smoking, become a teetotaler, and a shudh vegetarian. It will not be easy. I will become a health nut and an exercise maniac.

I will try to change my life and my lifestyle. I will see divorce as a legal option, but will not follow through. I will endure in my marriage, and I will harass my wife and kids. Then I will hit middle age, and with recalcitrant teenage children, I will think that I should have divorced my wife and my children, and taken early sanyasam (the voluntary withdrawal from worldly pursuits).

My kids will go to college and they will major in subjects that fascinate them, about which I will know very little. I will be embarrassed about my total lack of familiarity in those subjects. Then, they will marry someone of their choice. For my kids, who are now adults, the whole idea of languages, religions, castes, subcastes that we parents are so obsessed with, will make no sense or meaning. They will choose someone who will be very different from my caste, language, and from my “proudly parochial” subethnic identity. Or they will marry someone from the American Mainstream. 

I will then become fanatically religious. I will see no difference between religiosity and spirituality. I will make no attempt to understand the evolution of spiritual, religious and social ideas even within my own religion. I will see no inconsistency between what my religion preaches and how I and others practice it. I will dislike people who aren’t exactly as religious as I am.

I will think that I have become detached. Little will I realize that in reality, people around me have detached and jettisoned me — they will take the cue from Wall Street. Like American corporations giving involuntary retirement to their employees, my family will involuntarily give me sanyasam precisely when I will not want it.

Then, I will go through a period of intense soul-searching. I will then recognize that America, like India, is quite diverse, and thrives on diversity. Diversity is what has made the society great. With this recognition, eventually I will be comfortable with my identity of who I am and what I am.

I will finally realize that in trying to become an American, I imbibed the values of the some of the people around me.

I absorbed some of their values — not all of them good though; and I discarded some of the values of my ancestral land — not all of them bad though.

In my psyche, I will become a hybridized species, having made a unique synthesis of values taken from my old world and my new world. I will be a hyphenated American.

And there will be nobody else like me, even among the desis. (The central idea for this sketch is an article by Mikalos Vamose, a Hungarian American that I came across sometime back.)  — END


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